Dennis Byron's Open Source Series: Talking to... Alfresco
By Dennis Byron, Analyst, ebizQ
John Newton is a great source of wisdom for managers of OSS-centric start-ups
of any functionality because he's been through the last two major shifts in
software market dynamics in his career.
In the 1980s, fresh out of Berkeley, John started with Ingres (the old Ingres
before it was part of and then spun out of CA). In 1990, he and some friends
founded Documentum, based over in the East Bay at Pleasanton. Documentum became
a leader in the enterprise content management (ECM) market and was acquired
by disk-drive-maker-cum-software-supplier EMC in 2003. But by that time John
had moved to the U.K. to work from Documentum's European office and he liked
it there so much he never formally moved back to the U.S. He left Documentum
in 2001, launched an application company in the U.K. for the financial services
industry under the brand Activiti, and then in 2005 he co-founded Alfresco.
The Ingres/Documentum experience was highly related to the client/server shift
in the market whereas the Activiti/Alfresco experience is highly linked to Web
Lesson for users: you can never make hard and fast distinctions when it comes
to computer architectural shifts highly touted in the press. They happen over
decades and are very iterative. It's functionality that counts. That's why,
as a lesson for investors, John Newton cautions against emphasizing any company
or product characteristic higher than one rates functionality. In Alfresco's
case, as it had been with Documentum, the functionality is ECM.
Newton thinks the heritage ECM guys, including his old company, have so much
tied up in legacy client/server code that they can't move forward effectively
or quickly to this generation. As way of recent background, Newton and former
Business Objects Senior VP of operations John Powell decided to start a new
ECM software company because the market was consolidating and because they believed
they could offer a cost-effective alternative to those companies carrying legacy
They felt that was especially true in the ECM distribution channel, which was
being squeezed by the proprietary ECM suppliers. Given their backgrounds, Newton
and Powell concentrated on the enterprise in ECM rather than on web content
As for a lesson for other software supplier startups, Newton says make development
decisions that makes sense for your business plan and target market. Even more
important than his choice to go OSS with Alfresco, Newton credits his choice
to use aspect oriented programming (AOP). He said it was similar to a decision
he had made when starting Documentum to use object-oriented programming (OOP).
As a result, he caught the wave of a new development paradigm ahead of the market
but after it was mature enough to fit his needs. "AOP makes everything
overridable; everything is pluggable
, extendable," says Newton. The
three characteristics-overridable, pluggable and extendable are key features
needed when emphasizing the enterprise in ECM. AOP let the Alfresco team build
the product from the ground up and more quickly ("five times faster in
Alfresco's case") than any other option he considered.
The "quickly" in terms of development iterations is where OSS comes
in. And John believes his European base helped him see the benefits of that
development decision faster than he would have seen it in the U.S. There is
a lot of OSS in Europe and he realized it had to be part of the formula as he
and Powell addressed the opportunity they saw in the ECM market. In fact they
had used OSS pieces in the short-lived Activiti financial services application
and some of its features survive still in the Alfresco framework.
Just to repeat the lesson for startups, investors and users: Alfresco saw the
ECM opportunity before it decided on OSS. Alfresco saw AOP as a design methodology
before it decided on OSS. Alfresco saw OSS as a means to get to both places
fast (with a low barrier to market entry although that's my opinion; Newton
did not mention that as a benefit). OSS provided the rapid iteration and innovation
Newton needed to get Alfresco into the market quickly. The idea of having a
community did not come first; they began the community after they launched the
company. Newton feels "people took note of the background of the founders,"
which helped build community faster.
The community has provided:
- Translations in 20 different languages
- Add-ons for Outlook and plug-ins (e.g., to add calendar)
- Metadata extraction was an important feature added by the OSS community
Alfresco was forged in mid 2005 (remember they had some basic code already
from Activiti), had 10,000 downloads the first month and 100,000 by the end
of that year when they declared general availability. The first sales came in
mid 2006 and Alfresco currently boasts 15,000 registered users, several thousand
of whom develop "on top of Alfresco." Another lesson for startups:
"quickly" does not mean instantly.
In terms of licensing, Alfresco started with the Lesser GNU General Public
License (LGPL) model; switched to a SugarCRM model but that prevented Alfresco
from meeting some government mandates and encouraged the community in a less
useful direction (e.g., replicating OSS versions of enterprise extensions rather
than the add-ons and plug-ins that help everyone in the community more).
Alfresco settled on the MySQL-like dual model letting Alfresco focus primarily
on services (tech support, indemnity and maintenance) while letting OEMs embed
the product. Another lesson for startups: the OSS license model chosen needs
to directly relate to your business plan.
For the OSS record, Alfresco is built using Spring, Hibernate, Lucene and
jBPM based on standards and techniques such JSR-170, JSR-168, Web Services and
Representational State Transfer (REST). The Alfresco middleware lineup provides
high availability, distributed content synchronization, fail-over management
and clustering that is rapidly catching up, in terms of performance, to proprietary
middleware offering the same functionality. In terms of giving back to the community,
Alfresco is working more on open standards than OSS via groups in the content
management space such as AIIM (formerly known as the Association for Information
and Image Management). However, Alfresco has participated on various JSR efforts
via the Java Community Process (JCP) and with the Open Document Format effort
to keep independence in authoring tools.
Now that Alfresco's ECM offering has been in the market for over a year, Newton
had one more observation that would be helpful to startups. Just as OSS wasn't
the key factor in the business model and development decisions, Newton does
not believe OSS is an issue in user buying decisions. The key to users is that
Alfresco is a low cost, cost-effective alternative to other ECM solutions.
I posed a question to John that I always wrestle with given my analytical background
(at different times the middleware guy and ERP guy at both IDC and Datapro).
Is Alfresco middleware or an application? John said they asked themselves the
"same question often in Documentum." His answer is that in both cases
they started selling the product as an application but customers were always
adding on to it as if it were a platform. He walked the line in answering my
question, preferring the terms platform or solution.
I also asked about emerging trends, irrespective of Alfresco itself. There
is enough to write two articles in John's answers but his opinion on SOA and
REST are worth listening to. In the ECM market overall, Alfresco and companies
like it can take advantage of how services oriented architecture (SOA) handles
systems integration issues. He believes SOA's emphasis on SOAP and web services
makes it overly complex. He says to keep it simpler as with REST. If nothing
else, REST is better suited to content management and other things like open
search, new publish/subscribe protocols, and repositories that support federation,
and work inside and outside the firewall. So one more lesson: find the architecture
that suits your solution as well.
About the Author
Dennis Byron brings three decades of analyst experience to his role as
ebizQ's Community Manager for Improving Business Processes. This
community covers Business Process Management (BPM), Process Modeling,
Process Analysis, and Business Alert Monitoring (BAM), among other
More by Dennis Byron
As Community Manager, Byron will blog and podcast to keep the ebizQ
community fully informed on the latest news and breakthroughs relevant
to enterprise BPM. Byron will be responsible for bringing you breaking
news on BPM daily, writing feature articles and sourcing content from
other analysts, industry associations and vendors for publication on
ebizQ. Finally, each week, Byron will compile the most important news
and views in an e-mail newsletter for ebizQ's ever-growing BPM
Byron is ideally suited to the job, as he has researched and analyzed
all areas of IT and information-systems use for the past 30 years.
Byron looks at BPM market dynamics backed up by facts, while taking
into account the perspective of the IT and business person. He is a
frequent speaker and moderator on business processes, which will also
be one of his roles as Community Manager.
Byron was the ERP and Middleware Analyst with the Datapro division of
McGraw-Hill and IDC from 1991 to 2006. In these roles, he was the
primary analyst for Business Process Management. He has conducted
over 500 specific information-systems case studies. He has contributed
to Application Development Trends, IT Business Edge, Research 2.0 and
Byron is also the principal of IT Investment Research, which is aimed
at institutional and individual investors in IT, or anyone who enjoys
peering under the covers of "the financials," where large companies
and emerging IPOs like to bury their most interesting facts. His main
area of interest is investment opportunities in enterprise software.
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